In a New York Times story, “”No Rich Child Left Behind,” the author explained that children with rich parents perform better in school than children from middle-class and poor families.
After reading this story I thought of the education of Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr. and Black Panther Party (BPP) founder Huey P. Newton. During the turbulent 1960’s both of these men had national followings. Both were intellectuals and both fought for equality, not just for blacks, but for all races. Where the two men differed was in their education. And it was their education that shaped their ideals.
Before leading the civil rights movement King studied under pioneer educator Myles Horton. Horton, born in 1905 and founder of the Highlander Folk School, was born into a poor family. The innocuous Horton understood early on that poverty put him at a disadvantage. But he dreamed of a school that would “alleviate social ills.” Horton believed that traditional education wasn’t effective in the lives of poor kids. Poverty-stricken kids needed a school that “examines and challeng[es] the oppressive system,” Horton wrote in his autobiography.
Highlander, which opened in 1932, initially focused on labor and adult education. But during the 1950’s Highlander became a leadership training institution. Along with teaching African Americans their rights, the school promoted literacy skills. Activist Rosa Parks trained at Highlander for four months prior to her arrest for refusing to give her bus seat to a white patron. Other activist like Robert Abernathy, Diane Nash and King trained at Highlander. What became the prominent Highlander School “filled the need for developing new leadership as teachers and supervisors,” said King.
King was raised in a middle class family. He was blessed enough to finish school without experiencing hunger pangs. If King got sick his parents could afford medicine to ease his suffering. Because of his parents’ financial stability, King went to school stress free. Which resulted in him graduating high school valediction and starting Morehouse College at the age of fifth-teen. All of his childhood experiences, including his parents’ middle class income, were responsible for his non-violent ideals. But not all African American leaders agreed with King and his tactics. One of those leaders was founder of Black Panther Party (BPP) Huey P. Newton.
The charismatic Newton was “illiterate” when he graduated from high school. Not until after graduation did he learn to read. Newton went through school illiterate because he was at war with hunger and his teachers. His teachers constantly berated him. And he never had food to eat. His mother cooked twice a week, on average. And when she cooked it was the same meal; cornbread and rice. So hunger pangs were everyday life to Newton. When Newton wasn’t suspended from school, he was there robbing “rich white kids” so he could buy food, according to his autobiography. Throughout his twelve despondent years of formal education, only one year brought him ease; his junior year. “I had a cooking and eating class,” Newton recalled. “taught by the only black teacher in the school.” For an entire school year Newton didn’t rob nor steal from anyone.
Newton’s education, or lack thereof, provided the footing for the BPP’s militant attitudes. But it was Newton’s hunger pangs that provided the footing for the BPP’s community programs like the Free Children’s Food and Breakfast Program, Free Peoples Clothes and Food Program and the Oakland Community School, to name a few. These were important issues that King failed to supply to the African American communities. Voting was important to Newton, but after leaving the voting booths mothers and fathers had to go back to impoverished neighborhoods with hungry kids. Nor did voting stop the overt racism that blacks experienced in “stores and hospitals”, wrote Newton about King. Newton’s programs were needed until “blacks and Latinos were treated equally.”
What’s interesting is that Newton never studied at Highlander School. Highlander’s philosophy said, “education is based on experience and dialogue and the inclusion of cultural traits.” Newton was poor. So he knew from experience what the poverty-stricken needed. Unlike Newton, King wasn’t of the masses, so it was imperative that King study at Highlander. In fact, after leaving Highlander King began his Poor Peoples Campaign, but he was killed before it came into fruition. King’s successors Student Non-violent Coordination Committee (SNCC), also studied at Highlander before joining the civil rights movement and opening their Freedom Schools.
The hub of SNCC’s freedom schools was right here in Hattiesburg; the “Hub City” had more than six hundred students. The schools goal was to teach students ways to “remove oppression and restriction of social institutions,” wrote founder of Freedom Schools Charlie Cobb
According the New York Times article the “rich-poor gap” has increased by 40 percent within the past 30 years. By paralleling the lives of King and Newton its clear that money enables children to succeed in school. This is why its important for blacks to deal with issues that directly affects our communities and us. If not, 30 years from now it is possible that the poor-rich gap will increase to 70 percent.
Written By: darryl Robertson